I remember a night years ago when I woke up to the sound of a little whimper outside our bedroom door. I recognized it instantly. Amelia was sick. She had probably picked up another amoeba or something – an easy thing to do out there in Africa – and it hit her in the middle of the night. She came down from her attic bedroom and, quietly, into the bathroom outside our door.
Renee and I usually take turns when the kids are sick at night, and this time I heard Amelia first. I slipped out of bed and onto the cold cement floor next to her and beside the toilet; rubbed her back and didn’t say a word.
On this particular night, she was truly ill and the vomiting didn’t stop. She began to heave again, with all her little might. I wet a washcloth in cold water to lay on the back of her neck between the waves. She was exasperated now; a mat of sweaty hair atop a fever; a runny nose left unattended; and an aching stomach. She looked over to me, not quite in the eye, and blurted out a heart-wrenching question:
“Why did God have to make me like this?!”
It caught me by surprise. “Like what Amelia?” I said in shame. I knew what she meant, and a dad ought to have an answer for a sick little girl at such a time.
“Like this!” She looked down at her vomit-stained nightgown. “All gross and everything,” And she began to cry; a bundle of wetness and woe.
I stumbled to respond. The trouble was that I was wondering the same thing.
I held her and did the best I could to make sense of what humanity has been trying to make sense of for all of time. I would not have the answer she sought, hoping that my arms were all the answer she would need for the moment.
I’ve never forgotten that night, and her question. It seemed to encapsulate the big issue. The big problem that is pain. It is the most commonly cited reason for disbelief in God – despite our best efforts to understand and explain God. Somehow it still seems like He owes us an explanation.
What we get instead is Job’s story, which upon first reading looks as though it might settle the issue. However, the lesson of Job is not to answer the problem of pain but rather to show us that God does not, in fact, owe us an explanation. A let-down at first, but a rich lesson as you think about it.
Subsequent readings and contemplations reveal other, rich lessons – at least for me. One big one is the idea that we, in our best intentions, often fail to understand God’s ways. God does not meet our expectations. Job’s circle of nearsighted friends taught us that, even if they themselves didn’t learn it.
This insight into the great barrier between our ways and God’s ways is perhaps the biggest lesson from Job’s book. And it is most likely the real, biggest reason for disbelief in this world. It’s not so much that we can’t accept a loving God in a world of pain, but that we lack the imagination for such a scenario.
If you wonder if this is true just ask yourself what you would do if you were God? “If I were God” this world would have never seen the bubonic plague or Hitler. Nineveh would have been smitten before it was sorry, and Jesus would have never gone to the cross. Poverty would not be a problem. Leukemia would not be a word.
In fact, I would wind back the cosmos and undo this mess from the start. Humanity would be wonderfully made, not “fearfully and wonderfully.” Little girls would never ask why they were made that way.
It is all too easy to imagine ourselves a god. Although not a healthy way to think, the exercise has at least one merit: It shows the origin of our objection – why God? – as shattered expectations.
One of the world’s most famous Atheists was once interviewed for the cover story of Newsweek magazine. He de-constructed the existence of God in so many careful sentences and then stood his ground. But when pressed on the possibility “however slight” that there might, just might be a god out there, he balked. It’s possible. But not this god. Not the god of the Bible. Some other god wholly unlike the childish idea of the Christian god. This is not the sort of God you would expect…
It begs the question, “what do we expect?”
Perhaps it would be easier to voice what we don’t expect of God. What’s so surprising, confounding, impossible for us to imagine if “we were God?”
The fall. And the cross.
That would sum it up really. Neither one would have happened by our imagination. And this ought to tell us something about God.
I held mom’s 90-pound frame in my arms as she shook. “We never expected this,” she said. “Dad and I never thought about this.” She was talking about the leukemia. It was only nine months ago that it blind-sided her and dad. And today we were hit with another impossible, unexpected blow; his team of doctors telling us “there’s nothing more they can do.”
We’ve hardly begun to absorb the thought. I’ve spent a few days thinking over the past few months because I feel somehow like the time slipped away from me; like I wasn’t ready for the prognosis and so it must be some kind of mistake. But the time revealed itself full of memories. One surfaces now as I am comforting my mother.
One afternoon in dad’s hospital room, when he wasn’t doing too well, mom was sitting by his bedside – scooted up as close as possible – tenderly holding his hand. We were all listening to the music I had set-up for dad as it played in an endless loop on an iPod and a dock:
“What can wash away my sin? What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Matt Redman was cranking out a particularly earthy and melodious version of the old hymn and mom was singing along. Her head was pressed down into dad’s hand and tears rolled out of her eyes past his fingers to the sheets. I watched the spectacle in awe.
I could not articulate it then – or even now – but somewhere in that spectacle was the answer. The answer to the “problem” of pain. The answer to why God’s ways are so unexpected. Even the answer to why dad had leukemia, and why we were now preparing to say goodbye. I saw a glimpse of the mystery that angels long to look into. A picture of the fall, and the cross, mingled together with tears and hope.
“Why did God have to make me like this?” Like the image of my mom and dad, Amelia’s sobs still resonate in my memory. And now I wonder if any created thing observed us that night. As we sat there on the bathroom floor in the darkness, wrapped up in each-others arms. One of us shaking with fever, and the other shaking his head.
“God is good sweetheart. No matter what, God is good.”
The mysteries of the gospel, and the methods of man’s salvation, are so glorious that the blessed angels earnestly desire to look into them; they are curious, accurate, and industrious in prying into them; they consider the whole scheme of man’s redemption with deep attention and admiration. – Matthew Henry in his famous Bible commentary, on 1 Peter 1:12